Visiting the US from a Danish perspective
This year, just a few weeks before Easter, I visited the United States of America. I stayed there for about ten days, and visited Washington DC and New York. It was a great trip, and definitely something I’ll never forget. But being a Dane means I see the country from a rather different perspective, I think. What you hear about and see of the United States, is often produced in America, and thus seen with American eyes. Since I experienced it as a Dane, I got a different portrayal of the United States, and I saw it was a country more diverse than anything I’d ever seen before.
Expectations & first impressions
Frankly, my expectations of America weren’t all good. As a ‘digital youngster’ you are bombarded each day with impressions and messages from all over the world, and to avoid stocking up on meaningless information, your brain seems to remember only the stuff that stands out, the bad stuff usually. Therefore, my general view of America was not an altogether positive one. I expected the average American to be an obnoxious, right-wing, US-centric, obese, super religious bigot. Based on the scandalous Fox News reports. The prejudice aside, I was also looking forward to seeing the United States. This country is, after all, one of the countries with the most significant global impact, politically, economically and culturally. I was definitely looking forward to it.
One of the things I really enjoy about travelling (which I have done quite a bit) is actually the food. The food tells you so much about a country. Take Southeast Asian cuisine for instance. Very spicy, very sour and absolutely loaded with flavour. My grandfather put it this way, “I dislike Asian food, they are just hiding the crappy quality of the meat behind all their spices”. at first I found it amusing, but as I read about the subject, it turns out that some historians believe the reason Asian food is so loaded with flavour, is because of how hard it was to get nutritious, quality food in ancient Asia. So to ‘hide’ the quality of the food and induce a sense of fullness, they introduced many of the spices Southeast Asia is so famous for, which eventually turned into an important part of the culture. What I was looking forward to seeing in the United States, was the mix of all the different cultures that settled in America, and how they played together. Gastronomically and culturally.
My first impressions of the country was in Washington DC at the Harrington Hotel. As we stroll into the lobby, I’m met by the view of a large, rather obese Mexican, yelling at his friends. Not the best first impression as one might expect. From there, it got better though. The next morning I went to a waffle house, which is one of the more memorable experiences I had. It was called the “Lincoln Waffle House”. Five or six Asian people worked in there, and the clientele were one of the most diverse I had ever seen; there was older black people, a white family from the working class, an obese and old, white man that apparently lived in Thailand and a tall, middle-aged white man in an expensive suit. I could not help smiling, because this was truly the cultural mix I had expected for the United States.
When you visit a foreign country, you’re always very aware of yourself, not as a private person, but as a person from a Danish cultural background. The general view I get when I speak to foreigners about Denmark, is that we are an uptight and cold country, but people are very polite and nice once you get to know us. With this in the back of my head, I threw myself into the streets of Washington DC and the streets of New York, being careful not to be too cold. It really was freezing though.
Not being a pretentious prick or anything, but I have travelled quite a bit before visiting America. It’s not like I haven’t been confronted with cultural differences before, but they were quite different in the US. The thing I noticed is that random acts of kindness seem to work much better in the US. For instance, two friends and I had gotten our lips in an undesirable and painful state after the long, dry flight. So as we were standing in Walmart, looking at chapsticks, this very nice and helpful lady just walks over to us and tells us “you’d be wanting this one here, this is the best one for sore lips”. She was just a shopper trying to help confused tourists, and it worked. In Denmark, you’d never approach strangers in that way, the private space is way too important for us, even in public situations. I really prefer the American way here, because it is much easier to “get away” with being nice to others in the US than in Denmark. The other day, I read a book where an American man told a story about how he wanted to make a post office worker feel better. He simply went over and said “I wish I had your head of hair”. No more, no less. And the post office worker immediately brightened up and thanked the man. Now, I have not tried this in Denmark, but I could imagine it would not go near as well.
Another difference is the food in the United States. Hearing the words ‘food’ and ‘The United States’ together usually makes you think about fast food and the whole lot of the big ones: Burger King, Taco Bell, McDonalds and so on and so forth. What really interests me about the United States is the whole Twin Peaks-y diner culture, but sadly, this seems to be more of a rural thing, I didn’t find any authentic diners at least. I noticed that on of the big differences is not what you eat, but how you eat it. I think our New York guide said it perfectly: “We walk fast, we talk fast, we eat fast. We even walk, talk and eat at the same time!”. The whole grab-a-snack-on-the-corner seems to be the go to option for the Americans, at least the ones I met. Obviously, we see this in Denmark as well, but I think the concept originates from the US. I’m not particularly fond of this, though. I think that eating on the run makes you eat unhealthier, and this might be a reason as to why the Americans are very overweight. A great (or sad) example for comparison is Italy, where the country used to be a very healthy country with a low rate of cardiovascular diseases. Sadly, they have become more and more unhealthy, in proportion to families not eating dinner together. I think it’s a very good thing that it’s still the norm in Denmark to eat your dinner with your family, for both social and health reasons.
One thing I noticed in the US, a thing that I will really remember, is the social inequality. Compared to Denmark, there’s a much larger social polarisation in the US. The social classes are distributed differently. In Denmark, the lower classes, sadly, has an unproportionally large number of Middle Eastern immigrants. Not saying it only consists of immigrants. There are many sociological explanations to this, but I won’t bore you by writing them down now. But an interesting thing is that these immigrants are mainly Muslim immigrants, and thus the Muslims are viewed negatively in Denmark. The United States has quite a different social composition. Here, I noticed, the lower classes were mainly African-American and Latin-American, and thus not associated with any particular religion. This has really made me think after returning home. I think it’s so strange that the Muslims are more frequently prosecuted in Denmark than in the US. I mean, after all the 9/11 was indeed in New York. Yet after talking to Americans about this, the Muslim population just seem to blend in much better in the US, than in Denmark. You’d never see a “stop nazi-islamism” poster in New York or DC (a poster from the Danish conservative political campaign). It has made me wonder if it’s just an economic issue, and if the Muslims of Denmark belonged to the middleclass, perhaps we’d treat them with more respect.
Hearing a more personal tale from the American people in the US, I can only conlude that their values are different from the Danish values. For them, the freedom of choice is a very important thing, as it is one of the reasons people talk against a “Scandinavian” health-care system. They appreciate hard work and stories about men going from zero to hero, without some large authoritarian government trying to bring equilibrium to the social classes. A system where everybody gets something, and a system where we try not to let our country be controlled by the richest people, is what I grew up in. This undeniably leaves me fundamentally biased, and skeptical to the American system and their values. However, seeing it first hand, and talking to the “real” Americans has certainly left me as a person with greater sympathy for the Americans, as individuals, and as a country, no matter how thought provoking and strange it is to travel hundreds of miles and still be able to recognise the same movies, music, brands and even food.